Advantageous Adverbs

The previous post looked at some contested uses of adverbs: the overuse of adverbs, especially in the place of strong, specific verbs, and the use of flat adverbs (drive slow rather than drive slowly).

These flat, or short, adverb forms do not have the familiar adverb –ly endings and look like their related adjective forms, but function as adverbs. As discussed, it was 18th century prescriptive grammarians who created the rule that flat adverbs were substandard, despite the fact that they were commonly used in the English language for centuries.

For instance, the English novelist Daniel Defoe writes of weather in Robinson Crusoe (1719) as “violent hot,” and the English diarist, Samuel Pepys, writing a little earlier than Defoe, wrote in his famous diary of being “horrid angry” (merriamwebster.com). Because in Latin adjectives were not used as adverbs, they insisted that all adverbs in English must have the –ly endings.

Unlike Latin which uses many inflections to identify words and their function in a sentence, meaning in an English sentence comes from word order and function. A word can belong to more than one part of speech or word class depending on its function in a sentence. Consider the word book in the following examples:

You can read a book. (noun)

You can book a flight. (verb)

You can have book knowledge. (adjective)

Adverbs are one of the four major word classes (linguistic term) or parts of speech (traditional term). (The other major word classes are nouns, verbs, and adjectives.) Major word classes are what is called a form class, a class of words that have independent meaning and can be identified by contextual definitions – as seen in the example sentence above. The meaning of the word book is determined by its context or function in the sentence.

Major word classes are also open classes, which means they have a great many members and their numbers continue to increase as new words are added when the English language changes and absorbs new vocabulary from other languages and from technological and societal inventions. On the other hand, minor word classes (pronouns, prepositions, conjunctions, interjections, and articles) are closed classes: they do not admit new words and have few members. For instance, there are only three articles (a, an, the), seven coordinating conjunctions (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so), and about seventy prepositions, while various estimates there are some 200,000 – 300,000 nouns.

As discussed in the previous post, adverbs are traditionally defined as words that modify verbs, adjectives, and other adverbs. They add information about time, place, frequency, degree, reason, and manner to our sentences. However, phrases and clauses can also add information that single word adverbs do. When used in this way, when they function as adverbs, these phrases and clauses are called adverbial modifiers.

In Rhetorical Grammar, Kolln provides the following sentences with prepositional phrases, subordinate clauses, a verb (infinitive) phrase, and a noun phrase acting as adverbial modifiers.

On Tuesday night  we ordered pizza

because no one wanted to cook.

(prepositional phrase)                           

(subordinate clause)

The fans cheered  wildly  

when Fernando stepped up to the plate.

                               (adverb)          

(subordinate clause)

Suddenly  Paul walked  out the door,  

without a word to anyone.

 (adverb)             (prepositional phrase)

(prepositional phrase)

There’s a film crew shooting a movie

near the marina.

                                                           

(prepositional phrase)

I got up  early   this morning

to study for my Spanish test.

(adverb) (noun phrase)

(infinitive phrase)

On its last assignment in outer space,

Voyager 2 photographed the rings of Saturn.

(prepositional phrase)

           [from pages 149-150]

Because an adverbial modifier is a role that a single word or group of words can play in a sentence, it’s important to recognize their usefulness as Barbara Baig argues in “Don’t Dismiss Adverbs.” She is referring to the strong admonitions by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Stephen King, and other authors about using, or rather overusing, adverbs in their writing. Adverbs and adverbial modifiers are essential tools in a writer’s kit which should not be ignored. Baig provides a sentence from Dickens that has a base subject-verb combination (He lived) with an adverb structure that encompasses other adverbial and adjectival modifiers:

He lived in a gloomy suite of rooms in a lowering pile of building up a yard, where it had so little business to be that one could scarcely help fancying it must have run there when it was a young house, playing at hide and seek with other houses, and have forgotten the way out again.

Another advantageous use of adverbs is using them to modify whole sentences. Rather than modifying a single word or subordinate word group (as seen in the sentences above), sentence adverbs modify the meaning of an entire sentence and conveys the attitude of the writer or speaker toward the entire thought being expressed. Consider these examples from merriamwebster.com:

Thankfully, the missing items were all found.

Luckily, I thought to check the trunk of the rental car.

Hopefully, what is lost can still be recovered.

This source goes on to say that the use of sentence adverbs is more efficient because to express the same meaning the adverb would have to be replaced with the clunkier phrase containing the related adjective:

I am [thankful, lucky, hopeful] that . . .”

Let’s further break down this placement of the adverb at the beginning of the sentence. Since adverbs are moveable, they can appear at the beginning, middle, and end of the sentence. Look at variations on this example from grammar.com.

Quickly, Igor will run across the field.

Igor will quickly run across the field.

Igor will run across the field quickly.

The adverb modifies the verb: when Igor runs across the field, he’ll run quickly.

But with a sentence beginning with hopefully, the adverb does not modify the verb:

Hopefully, Igor will run across the field.

Igor cannot run hopefully, so traditional grammarians would rephrase the sentence:

One hopes that Igor will run across the field.

It is to be hoped that Igor will run across the field

Igor, one hopes, will run across the field.

As discussed above, such constructions are clunkier. In the more efficient and advantageous construction – Hopefully, Igor will run across the field – the sentence adverb hopefully sums up the entire sentence and describes the attitude of the speaker.

Despite the relaxing of prescriptive rules, the use of sentence adverbs, especially hopefully, may continue to be frown upon by some language purists. However, the Oxford English Dictionary traces the use back to 1644, and it is considered acceptable under modern theories of style (grammar.com). As with all matters of style, you need to determine your own preferences or those in-house ones of any employer or publisher.

(Material for this post was compiled from a number of resources, including merriamwebster.com, Rhetorical Grammar, grammar.com, and writersdigest.com.)

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